Miles Davis’ brilliant, misunderstood Bitches Brew broke every rule: ‘An art form unto itself’

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Recorded over just three days, Miles Davis’ Grammy-winning Bitches Brew is understood now to be a cataclysmic moment in jazz — the beginning of a bold new synthesis with rock. But it wasn’t always that way.

Many simply didn’t know what to make of it. Strikingly improvisational (Miles Davis’ sidemen were typically given little more than a tempo before each take), wildly inventive (they moved determinedly away from the embedded rules of jazz), and pioneering in its conception (with producer memorably Teo Macero stitching together bits and pieces to make longer takes), Bitches Brew sounded like little that had come before.

And, as drummer Lenny White tells us in an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown, that’s just the way Miles Davis wanted it. There was a freedom in trying something new, and trying it in real time. Davis believed inspiration bloomed from that freedom.

“It was pretty organic,” Lenny White says. “I think what was really special about that project, and I haven’t witnessed anything like it since then, was you had 11, 12 musicians in the studio, all at the same time playing music. Miles wanted to bring all of those different people into one place and to have the focus be on creating music. Usually what happens is, you bring people in the studio, you put music in front of them and they improvise from that. This was totally different. This was a situation where we were told to play off of what you hear from one another, then to take it to another level. That’s what was great about that record: Together, we created this thing that has lasted.”

Lenny White was part of a group of drummers, working within a larger crowd of free-wheeling Davis collaborators. Jack DeJohnette, Don Alias and Billy Cobham also appeared in varying tandems on Bitches Brew, which arrived in April of 1970. Miles Davis’s trumpet — torrid here, where he’d been known for an icy-cool demeanor before — is bolstered by three pianists (Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul and Larry Young), two bassists (Dave Holland and Harvey Brooks), saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bass clarinetist Bennie Maupin and guitarist John McLaughlin, among others.

Together, they created a deeply controversial jazz-rock double-album that became Miles Davis’ first-ever gold-selling release. At the time, there were those who called it a noble failure, the end of jazz, the beginning of fusion. Today, it’s an understood masterpiece of improvisational gumption.

But Bitches Brew is not, Lenny White cautions, a fusion record. That update of the basic jazz idiom didn’t truly coaelsce for a while, and by then it had begun to follow a lot more rules. “The mistake people made was calling it fusion. It was jazz rock,” White tells us. “There were elements that were authentic jazz elements and there were authentic rock elements. It was music that was true to both art forms. It wasn’t what fusion became after that; in seven or eight years, that was fusion. Then what you got was a hybrid, music that had licks and attitude that were somewhere between the two.”

The album provided influential in other ways, as its contributors scattered across a broad musical landscape. Lenny White later went on to work with Return to Forever, a group led by his Bitches Brew sessions mate Chick Corea. John McLaughlin co-founded Mahavishnu Orchestra; Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter led Weather Report. All of them expanded upon the melding of jazz and rock heard here.

Bitches Brew and bands like Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report were actually true to both kinds of music: They were jazz rock bands as opposed to fusion bands,” White adds. “They put that moniker on the musical style because they didn’t know what to call it. It’s interesting being on the front end of something that becomes a paradigm shift like that. It’s so new that nobody understands it — and they don’t know what to call it. So they call it a mixture or a fusion, but it was an art form unto itself.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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